Are you looking for what to do in Shanghai? You have come to the right place.
Shanghai is the world’s largest city and one which very positively surprised me. It is not a place you come to tick items off a bucket list, many of the best things to do in Shanghai are experiential rather than your typical tourist landmarks.
However, it is a fantastic place to people watch, to enjoy views and to marvel at how much China has changed in the last decade. I highly recommend visiting Shanghai if you are traveling to mainland China as it will set the tone for the rest of the trip.
I have decided to split the list of things to do in Shanghai geographically because the city is huge and you don’t want to waste time going up and down illogically. This way you can organize your time by area.
I highly recommend that you start by picking your favorite places to visit in Shanghai and then using the below map to draw your itinerary.
Most of Shanghai’s attractions are clustered around three main areas, with a fourth group of places to visit in Shanghai scattered further away and which you can explore if you still have time.
If you have never been to the city before, I highly recommend that you devote a day to explore all the things to do in each Shanghai area below. Leave the last section, with tourist attractions further away from the city center, for the end, and see how much time you have.
For visits that are longer than three days, try to explore the Shanghai attractions listed last, or even take a day trip to one of the water towns, they are well worth the trip.
- Things to do in Shanghai – The Bund
- Admire old movie posters and Art Nouveau design of Fairmont The Peace Hotel
- Check out the ceiling at the Pudong Development Bank
- Photograph the colonial buildings and Pudong at night
- Take a selfie with a bull
- Watch the sunset over Pudong
- See the Monument to the People’s Heroes
- Learn more at The Bund History Museum
- Chill at Huangpu Park
- Check out the Gutzlaff Signal Tower
- Enjoy sunset drinks
- Cross the river on a magic train
- Go on a riverboat tour on the Huangpu River
- Rockbund Art Museum
- Holy Trinity Church
- Things to do in Shanghai – French Concession, Old Town and Jing’an
- Enjoy hip drinks in the French Concession
- Check out the Shanghai Propaganda Art Center
- See the marriage market at People’s Square
- Learn about ancient art at the Shanghai Museum
- Visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall
- Stroll Nanjing Road pedestrian shopping street
- Wonder at beautiful Yuyuan Garden
- Sip soup from a dumpling
- Get your souvenirs or Instagram shots at Tianzifang
- Shikumen Open House Museum
- Jing’an Temple
- Have a coffee at the world’s largest Starbucks
- Get lost in the back lanes
- Things to do in Shanghai – Pudong and Lujiazui
- Things to do in Shanghai – Elsewhere
Things to do in Shanghai – The Bund
The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous area. Unlike Beijing or other cities in Asia, not a lot of Old Shanghai has been preserved, so this is the most relevant historical part, even though it talks about developments from the 18th century on.
The Bund is a river-facing line of colonial buildings that are a unique feature of the city and make it a very appealing place to stroll. Among the grand Art Deco facades, you might feel like you are in any European city.
This part of the city should be the first place you visit in Shanghai because it is easy to explore on foot, provides a great view over Pudong and the river and it will set the tone for Shanghai’s old and new vibe.
There are lots of interesting buildings in The Bund, but below are a couple worth a special mention. I have listed them in the order I think you should explore them, starting with those that provide the most background, but also in an order that makes sense to explore on foot.
You shouldn’t need to get a taxi to walk the entire area, the majority of the places to see in The Bund are near each other.
Admire old movie posters and Art Nouveau design of Fairmont The Peace Hotel
Perhaps the most famous of all the buildings on The Bund is The Fairmont Peace Hotel, one of the best hotels in Shanghai (and the oldest) and worth a visit for its architecture and collection of old Chinese movie posters and photographs.
Designed by P&T Group, The Fairmont Peace Hotel is one half of the now-defunct Peace Hotel which was split into two sections, the Sassoon House, where the Fairmont Hotel is, and the Palace Hotel, which is today The Swatch Art Peace Hotel and owned by the watch company.
Originally, the Sassoon House was built in 1929 by Victor Sassoon, a wealthy businessman with investments across Asia. When it was finished, it was one of the few skyscrapers in Asia and Sassoon used to live on the tenth-floor penthouse. The Cathay Hotel took from the fourth to the ninth levels.
The building is decidedly Art Deco in the original style, and you should not just admire the facade but go inside for a look into a gallery of posters from famous Chinese movies and other images of historical moments in Shanghai history.
The central octagonal lobby is spectacular. Framed by a central statue of a glass phoenix surrounded by silver panels and topped by a Lalique stained-glass dome, it is impossible not to spend some time admiring its beauty.
But it is not just the design and architecture of the building which earned it a spot in the best buildings on The Bund, the Peace Hotel also has historical value and played an important role in Shanghai’s past.
During the creation of today’s China, at the end of the 40s and 50s, the building was taken over by the government and it later became the headquarters of the Shanghai Commune during the Cultural revolution.
The other half of the hotel was built in the 1850s in the Renaissance style and opened as the Palace Hotel in 1903 with two elevators that were the first ones in the city. The building was also taken over by the municipality in 1949 and then became the headquarters of the Japanese during WWII.
In 1956, to commemorate the first symposium on World Peace, both the Palace Hotel and the Sassoon House were renamed The Peace Hotel with rooms in the two wings. They remained as such until 2007 when they closed down for a three-year renovation, emerging as the two entities they are today.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel is one of Shanghai’s best hotels and has maintained a lot of the same glamour The Cathay and The Peace Hotel had.
The best way to enjoy it is by booking afternoon tea at the Jasmine Lounge, have a drink at the famed 1930s Jazz Bar which is a global institution or a meal at Dragon Phoenix Restaurant. If you don’t have time for any of these, make sure to at least walk in and have a look at the photography and poster gallery adjacent to the main lobby.
Here you can find a collection of old photographs of illustrious guests such as famous British General Bernard Law Montgomery who stayed at The British Suite, the Chinese “father of rocketry” Qian Xuesen who got married at the hotel, or Edgar Snow, author of Red Star, who stayed at The American Suite.
Perhaps most notable are Charlie Chaplin, who was rumoured to be having an affair with Paulette Goddard, actress in Modern Times, with whom he shared a room.
The Swatch Art Peace Hotel hosts artists in residence for three to six months. You can visit and explore the temporary exhibitions or, if you are an artist, apply to live there.
Check out the ceiling at the Pudong Development Bank
There are lots of grand and officious buildings on The Bund but one which stands out, not as much from the outside (which is also grand) as from the inside, is the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank
The building was originally the headquarters of the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) from the time the building opened in 1923 until 1955 when it was taken over by the Chinese government. Like the Peace Hotel, it was designed by P&T Group but in Neoclassical style.
At the time of its opening, it was the largest bank building in the world after the Bank of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh and it had been designed with feng shui in mine.
HSBC reduced its operations after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China and the government took over the building in 1955, renaming it Municipal Government Building.
The only way to fully grasp the magnificence of the building is by entering, even if you are not banking at the building you can just walk in.
Be left speechless by the incredible amount of marble and observe the murals and frescoes inside, you will feel as if you got into a Greek temple like the ones in Syracuse. These murals were discovered in 1997 during restoration efforts.
The murals had escaped the Cultural Revolution destruction thanks to an architect that covered them in stucco and paint. They represent the signs of the zodiac and the frescoes one of each of HSBC cities.
The signs say you can’t take pictures without permission but if you ask nicely they are usually fine and will even get out of your frame.
Before leaving, make sure to spot the two lions at the entrance to the building. These symbols of HSBC were originally made of bronze and are now on display at the Shanghai Museum. During the Japanese occupation at the time of WWII they were taken to be melted but managed to escape that fate. Note how one of them is roaring, to showcase protection and the other is calm.
Tip: The entrance sign states that you can’t go in with pets, wearing “slippery dress” (whatever that means, maybe a slip dress that exposes the shoulders?), eating or drinking. Groups are also not allowed and you should be quiet. There is another long list of things you can’t do but they are common sense.
Photograph the colonial buildings and Pudong at night
Perhaps the most impressive time to enjoy The Bund is at night, and trust me, you will not be the only one with that thought.
Between the fact that the Pudong area gets lit up in what looks like a light show, and that The Bund is also illuminated, this is the most popular time of the day to come here. I would say it is still worth it to brave the crowds.
It is not unusual to see couples taking pre-wedding photos at dusk and you might have to be extra careful to avoid being hit by a selfie stick, but as soon as you walk a bit further away from the main central area, you will see the crowds dissipate.
Bear in mind the police put up quite a display of safety measures every evening with fences, controlling the flow of tourists, and you might find yourself in the midst of a human river. Patience is key.
Take a selfie with a bull
It is not just Wall Street where you can find a charging bull amid financial buildings, Shanghai has its own, right across the street from the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank and designed by the same artist, Sicilian Arturo Di Modica.
The bull was unveiled in 2010, the year of Shanghai’s Expo and two years after the Financial Crisis hit the US markets.
As expected, it is also as popular with Chinese tourists taking pictures all day and night.
Watch the sunset over Pudong
As I mentioned, the area in front of The Bund and by the river is incredibly popular at night, so much so that the police install fences and crowd control measures every evening.
Stroll a bit further away from the main area near The Bull and you will find platforms to sit on, benches and a more laid back and slightly quieter atmosphere which attracts couples and families who come to see the sun set on Pudong’s skyline.
I have to admit the sight is mesmerising and I couldn’t help but want to come here every evening. What can I say, I love light shows and while Pudong does not put any up, the buildings are lit and some project bright ads on their facades.
The entire look and feel is more similar to Hong Kong’s neon signs and Victoria Harbour skyline than Singapore’s Marina Bay Light Show.
See the Monument to the People’s Heroes
Located at the north end of The Bund, closest to The Peninsula Hotel and the Suzhou Creek, and named the same way as the famous landmark in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the monument is dedicated to all those who died in the revolutionary cause.
It was unveiled in 1993 and sits right above the Museum of the Bund and it is made of three tall concrete pillars leaning against each other. It is a bit hard to photograph from nearby but makes for cool photos from the bottom up.
As this is a commemorative landmark, lots of Chinese tourists like to come here and take photographs with the Chinese flag so might have to wait for your turn. In the morning, I could also spot locals doing Tai-Chi as there is a relatively spacious (and usually less crowded) platform with river views.
Learn more at The Bund History Museum
This hidden museum you can easily miss is right underground from the Monument to the People’s Heroes. If it wasn’t because I was seeing people going down and not coming back up, I would not have known there was a museum there.
I would absolutely make some time (half an hour to an hour) to stroll the circular museum that follows the evolution of The Bund through the decades with photographs and other documents. Here, you can find more info about the various buildings and read their stories.
I read somewhere that the museum used to be very thought-provoking and with signs that were still in keeping with Chinese propaganda and very negative descriptors for foreign powers. However, like many other parts of Shanghai, it was probably revised before the Expo and it reopened in 2009 with signs in English using more politically-correct language.
The museum is split by period, from the 1800s till the 21st century. You will start your journey from 1842 when Shanghai became a British port. Throughout, there are photos of before and after, of Shanghai as a small river-facing port next to today’s skyscraper haven.
There are also lots of maps which show the original British settlements on The Bund and their evolution. The French also have their own sections, as both powers tried to make Shanghai port their own. The origins of the French Concession as a separate administrative organisation are well explained here.
The museum also has photos of many of the first things that happened in Shanghai, for example the first trolley bus, or the first broadcasting station.
There are also photographs of the first bank, The British Oriental Bank, which was the first of many that Shanghai welcomed before being officially named Oriental Wall Street and considered the third largest financial market in the 1870s.
Most of the key buildings on The Bund have their own dedicated areas, with explanations on their origins and design, which is why this is one of the best places to start your exploration of The Bund.
Chill at Huangpu Park
This small but fragrant park at the end of The Bund in front of The Peninsula Hotel was the first park in Shanghai and was originally much larger.
It was a public garden of European style and it opened to the public in 1868. There were music pavilions, grassy areas for children to play, etc. The park was not open to dogs, bikes or Chinese (except servants). This ban on locals was only lifted in 1928, 60 years later.
Check out the Gutzlaff Signal Tower
This small striped red and white tower part of the Zi Ka Wei Observatory located on the river side of The Bund opened in 1884 to provide weather forecasting services to the boats in the port of Shanghai.
Enjoy sunset drinks
There are a number of bars along The Bund that provide a fantastic background for sunset and evening drinks. Perhaps the favorite one is the Sir Elly’s Terrace bar at The Peninsula because it’s open-air and it’s low enough but on the first row, to see The Bund and Pudong.
A famous one is the Hyatt’s Bar Rouge, indoors but with great views owing to its location. If you want to take a bit of perspective, the newly opened Edition Shanghai Hotel has a small rooftop bar that is the place to see and be seen. Book a table to have a private space with sofas and the best views.
Cross the river on a magic train
Shanghai Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
The Shanghai Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is a colorful train ride that crosses the river below the ground while passing through several backgrounds with a light and music show projected on the walls.
The glass train car is a fun way to get from The Bund to Pudong or vice-versa instead of taking a taxi, there is even enough space for you to take your bags. The underground area where the train is also has a few other entertainment options (this is China!).
Or do like me and go on a return trip just for fun.
Go on a riverboat tour on the Huangpu River
If you are spending any time around The Bund area you will unavoidably see plenty of riverboats touring the water between The Bund and Pudong. They become particularly popular during sunset and in the evening when the area is even more stunning.
Riverboat tours come in all shapes and forms. There are also some tours that include the cruise as well as a tour of other parts of Shanghai. Below are some of the best:
Rockbund Art Museum
On the second line of buildings behind The Bund there are a host of lovely shops, historical bits and pieces and also some galleries worth a check. One of them is Rockbund Art Museum, along Huqiu Road, a road worth exploring on its own too.
This is a contemporary art museum housed in several heritage buildings in a pedestrian part north of The Bund. You will mostly find temporary exhibitions and a host of cafes and other cool spots.
The museum was the first contemporary one to open in China and has done a good job to promote local talent. The renovation of the heritage buildings it is located in and their surrounding is also valuable.
More information here.
Holy Trinity Church
This red-brick Neogothic Anglican cathedral opened its doors in 1869 and was catalogued as a cathedral in 1875, the first one to be built in China. It was designed by Sir. Gilbert Scott and toned down and minimised in size in keeping with a pretty modest budget.
While it might have gone into oblivion during the early years of he Chinese Republic, it has been renovated and today is a striking building in modern Shanghai.
More information here.
Things to do in Shanghai – French Concession, Old Town and Jing’an
Further to the west of The Bund you will find the part of Shanghai that is not as colonially inspired, except for the French Concession.
Here are the remains of Old Shanghai, of its small pedestrian lanes, the Shikumen concrete homes and the Frech colonial vestiges. There are also the hip shopping malls and modern buildings.
If you want to do a good part of this area with a guide, this walking tour includes People’s Square, Nanjing Road and The Bund plus some other landmarks on the way.
Enjoy hip drinks in the French Concession
This maze of alleys and streets in what was the former French Concession area in Shanghai is the place to come on the weekend to mingle with the hip and cool Shanghainese.
The area is filled with old Shikumen, the stone houses that were typical of this part of China, next to French inspired houses.
I recommend spending a couple of hours before drinks and dinner in the area near Andaz Hotel. Have a drink at The Odd Couple a bar started by two awarded cocktail bartenders then followed by dinner at fabulously over the top Lion (上海滩 in Chinese and on Maps).
If you prefer to explore the craft beer scene, book a craft beer tour which takes you to a few spots in the French Concession. This is particularly good if you are traveling alone but still want to enjoy the night. The tour also includes rice wine and, of course, the famous soup dumplings. Book it on GetYourGuide here.
Check out the Shanghai Propaganda Art Center
This small museum in the edges of the French Concession is a bit hard to find because of its basement location but quite a unique place to explore.
Here you can see original propaganda posters from the 20th century Chinese history. Among all the neon signs and shopping malls, it is hard to remember that China is a communist country and here you get a glimpse into what it was like before the country decided to open up.
See the marriage market at People’s Square
This massive square and park is the place to come anytime when you need a breath of fresh air, but especially on weekends when the marriage market is in full swing.
Yes that’s right, Shanghai has many unique places and you could be reading about interesting facts about China all day, this is just one of many. On weekends, parents and grandparents gather at this major square to find a suitable candidate for their children.
It all started because they were already gathered there, since the park is a popular place to come for Tai-Chi practice and dancing, so why not more officially talk about their children with proper prospecting?
Parents write their children’s skills and selling points as they look for a great match. China has over 30 million more men than women as a result of the One Child Policy, so here is where smart parents try to get ahead.
Strangely pictures and looks are not relevant, Chinese parents are more focused on material and objective aspects like the Chinese Zodiac sign, and the geographical origin. Historically, Chinese marriages were arranged on the basis of economic and financial ties and this is only changing recently.
Aside from the marriage market, People’s Square is the heart of Shanghai and is where all official events take place. The park is rather green and peaceful and has lots of benches for a break. In the middle of it is the Shanghai Museum and around it some other sites mentioned on this list.
Learn about ancient art at the Shanghai Museum
Shanghai Museum is today located in the middle of People’s Square after having moved here from the old Race Club nearby.
Don’t let the concrete and rather sober-looking appearance of the 1993 design distract you from the collection of ancient art pieces inside.
Entrance is free and you should account for half an hour to an hour minimum, depending on how interested you are in this kind of art. There are translations in English of some sections, but not all, and a free audio guide you can get with more background.
The exhibits at the Shanghai Museum
The museum has sections on old coins, ancient sculptures, paintings, seals, furniture, calligraphy, jade, ceramics and porcelain all spread among several floors. Start at the top and walk your way down.
There is also a cafe styled with the same old Chinese furniture. Interestingly, there are vending machines selling replicas of the old coins around the museum.
Tip: The museum closes its doors for entry one hour before closing time, on the dot, I discovered this the hard way. There are free tours at 10am and 2pm and they well worth it so try to schedule your visit around it.
More information here.
Visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall
This museum located across the road from the Shanghai Museum was a great find. I was not even sure what it was when I walked in but I was very happy I found it as it ended up being one of the best things to do in Shanghai.
Inside, you can learn more about Shanghai as an urban center, how the city was formed and the various urban planning projects that have been designed over the years, even a look into the future of the city.
You will be able to read about the architecture of the city and the Shikumen houses as well as a bit more about The Bund. The collection of photographs on the first floor is pretty nice and gives a good understanding of the city’s architectural influences and evolution. It may also add a few more places to visit in Shanghai to your list.
On the 3rd floor, there is a multimedia section about the future of the city with a 360 degree surround video that takes you around the city’s formation and the Expo pavilions and is pretty cool.
A highlight of the museum is the lit 3D model of Shanghai which gives a pretty good perspective on the city’s size and the main areas. This is a good enough reason to come in. You can also rent audio guides although there are English translations of most sections.
Tip: There is a sightseeing space with a cafe on the top floor with nice views over People’s Square.
Stroll Nanjing Road pedestrian shopping street
This long road is Shanghai’s shopping artery. Part of it is pedestrian and the rest is open to traffic. Walking around at any time of the day or night you really feel China’s electrifying soul. Shopping is something Shanghainese love and nowhere is this more obvious than here.
Come here at night when the lights are on and you feel like it’s daylight. Even if shopping is not your thing, it is worth having a stroll just to admire China’s consumerism, perhaps an oxymoron in itself. And who knows, you might end up with a picture dressed like a 1930s Shanghai opium gangster.
For the little ones, there is a train that goes up and down the street for a seated experience, and many many food options for foodies.
Tip: The pedestrian part of Nanjing Road is from People’s Square metro station to Nanjing Road metro station.
If you want to get under the skin of the shopping area and discover all the old shops, book one of the shopping tours of Nanjing road here.
Wonder at beautiful Yuyuan Garden
If you came to Shanghai expecting to see Chinese history you are not in luck. Most of Shanghai’s past is concentrated on The Bund and not much of Old Shanghai has been preserved.
This is in part because Shanghai was not a major city before the arrival of Europeans who saw it as a strategic port and there weren’t that many structures that would have remained.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the few old parts of the city is Yuyuan Gardens and the area around it. The maze of pedestrian alleys, old Chinese houses and pagodas set against the backdrop of the traditional Chinese garden are a must. This was my favorite part of Shanghai.
Yuyuan Gardens is a classic Chinese garden with ponds, bridges, pavilions, rocks and plants. It was built in the 16th century and has been destroyed and restored several times, most recently during the Japanese occupation of the city. Today’s gardens were reopened in 1961.
Adjacent to the ticketed enclosed garden are many pagodas, bridges, ponds and shops. The area is quaint and filled with beautiful shops, red lanterns and food stalls.
You can have tea in one of the pavilions overlooking the pretty pond, eat at the restaurants or simply people-watch. The area is incredibly popular.
Tip: Pictures are best early in the morning when there is nobody, sunset sees an avalanche of tourists. It is possible to take dramatic pictures of the pagodas and ponds against the Shanghai Tower.
More information here (in Chinese use Google translate to get a feel for it, although some sections don’t make much sense with the translation).
Book a half day tour of Old Shanghai that includes parts where you can still see the Shikumen houses part plus Yuyuan Gardens to learn all about the oldest part of Shanghai.
Sip soup from a dumpling
Shanghai is known for many different kinds of food such as noodles or pork, and generally speaking, the local food is not spicy but can be very sweet.
One of the most fun local foods to eat in Shanghai is dim sum, but not just any kind, the soupy type called Xiao Long Bao.
The famous soupy dumplings from Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung took to the global stage and are usually filled with minced pork meat, but can also be made with any other filling from crab to vegetables.
Xiao Long Bao are found across the city and have taken a life of their own in Shanghai and evolved into large portions you get served with a straw, so you can sip the soup.
Recommending a place to eat them is not easy. Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 favorite places to have them at.
If you prefer to eat your dumplings with chopsticks and a spoon, go for the formal version at Taiwanese Michelin-awarded Din Tai Fung, which is a sure bet (I eat at the Singapore branch several times a month), or try one of the scientifically tested ones from The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index.
Get your souvenirs or Instagram shots at Tianzifang
Tianzifang is a small pedestrian area made of three alleys crisscrossed by several lanes and filled with souvenir shops and other cute stores selling trainers, tea pots and bags, snacks, trinkets, clothes and jewelry.
The area is not very big and the lanes are narrow, at times barely wide enough for two people to walk past the busy shop displays, but it is very quirky and quaint.
Millennials take Instagram shots with unicorn ice cream cones, teenagers buy cool trainers and tourists stock on Shanghai branded t-shirts. I bought fruit tea, something I love buying but never actually drink.
Tianzifang is a great place to come in the evening as the sun is coming down and the lights come on, it’s romantic and inviting.
Shikumen Open House Museum
This small museum is the best way to see how the Shikumen houses, or stone-gate houses, used to be.
There are still quite a few of them left in Shanghai, mostly private homes, and you will come across them as you explore the city, but they are fast disappearing.
The museum is the easiest way to get inside and see how people used to live in the 1920s and 1930s. The furniture and items are all from the period although not necessarily belonging to the family who owned the house. Look out for the small back room that was often rented out.
This golden Buddhist temple at the end of Nanjing Road is older than it looks.
At first, when I saw it from my window at the PuLi Hotel I thought it was new, shining bright yellow and gold under the sunny sky, but then I realised the original was actually 800 years old yet it has undergone several restorations.
Jing’an Temple gives name to this area adjacent to the French Concession and The Bund and translates as Place of Peace and Tranquility. If you have the chance to get up high and see its roof you’ll be stunned.
Inside, there are two main halls and there is an entry fee you must pay. Some of the Buddha statues are quite impressive.
More information here (only in Chinese, use Google translate).
Have a coffee at the world’s largest Starbucks
It may sound strange to suggest a visit to Starbucks and I will admit that I am not a fan of their coffee and only end up there when I am traveling in places where there is no coffee culture and my hotel’s coffee is truly appalling.
But the Starbucks Reserve Roastery at the end of Nanjian Road is a fun and fascinating place to visit in Shanghai because it is different and also the largest in the world.
The coffee store has a bakery area, a beer bar, a wine bar, a tea bar, and coffee appreciation experiences you can order from a pretty menu with appealing drawings.
You can also see the coffee being roasted in the massive machines, although beware, we saw some interesting behaviour going on in the back with the staff emptying the already packaged coffee and it seemed like they were putting the beans back in the production line.
The space is indeed huge and spills onto the shopping mall area. It is also permanently packed and apparently popular on weekend evenings as “the” place to be. It is worth a visit even if you don’t feel like a cuppa joe.
Tip: Expect queues at peak hours, try to come during the week.
More information here.
Get lost in the back lanes
The best way to explore Shanghai is by simply walking around on foot and getting lost. This is how I found the back alleys with the clothes hanging on bamboo sticks like in Singapore, the old hardware stores selling unique items and the uncles selling cicadas in small glass pots.
Shanghai’s old lanes are not a landmark per se, and most tourists will miss them because they are hard to pinpoint and usually away from major bucket list places, but they are where the soul of the city is.
I enjoyed walking around the area beyond Tianzifang and simply taking it all in, people watching, as much as they watched me. But if you want to really learn all about it, book a half day tour of Old Shanghai that includes parts where you can still see the Shikumen houses part plus Yuyuan Gardens.
Things to do in Shanghai – Pudong and Lujiazui
In the previous two sections we looked at all the things to do in Shanghai that are in the east part of the Huangpu River but there is a very large part of the city that is located in Lujiazui and Pudong, on the other side.
Lujiazui is known for the skyscrapers and for being the business center. While The Bund has the headquarters of most of the banks and financial institutions and was traditionally known as the financial center, Lujiazui has the flashy buildings and a lot of the luxury hotels and offices.
Along with these have come great restaurants, some recent green developments and a group of shopping malls attracting crowds.
Let’s take a look at the best things to do in Shanghai’s Pudong.
There are four main high rise towers in Lujiazui but the highest of them all is the twisted Shanghai Tower, which opened in 2016 and is the second tallest building in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The tower was designed by Gensler architects and is filled with offices, a conference center and a shopping mall on the lower levels and premium offices and J Hotel in the top floors, from the 84th to the 110th which is the second highest hotel in the world after the Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong. If full, it can host 30,000 people, that is more than my hometown of Sitges.
If you want to visit the highest floors, you need to buy your tickets from the ground floor external ticketing office before going in. To skip the queue (they are quite long even during the week and in the middle of the day) buy your ticket in advance on Klook.
Entrance is through the basement where there is an exhibition about the tower and other tall buildings around the world, like the Lotte World Tower in Seoul. Through a multimedia showcase you can learn more about how the building was designed and about its ecological impact.
The Shanghai Tower from the ground and the world’s tallest skyscrapers
For example, the glass used on the windows saves energy by improving cooling and heating, and the rooftop is crowned by wind turbines that help produce almost half of the energy the tower consumes.
This part of the tower reminded me of the Panamericana Tower in Buenos Aires, with lots of engineering panels and well lit models of the tallest buildings that help put it all into perspective.
But what is all the fuss about at the Shanghai Tower and way is this one of the best places to visit in Shanghai?
For starters, it is the taller of the lot, by a big difference. The Shanghai Tower is 632 meters tall and has 128 floors. The next tallest tower in Shanghai takes you to the 100th floor only, that is 20% below.
With your ticket, you can go all the way up to the observation deck on the 118 floor, the highest observation deck in the world, higher than Burj Khalifa, from where you can explore a couple of floors up and down and have incredible views.
You can walk all the way around the building here for a 360 degree view of Shanghai below. Chinese culture believes in hanging wishes from a Tree of Wishes and there is one on the observation deck too.
For those that love to send postcards, there is a post office and mailbox here, the highest in the world, obviously, and a casual cafe from where you can take a seat and enjoy the views. The ticket will also give you access to a couple of higher floors where there are space-related exhibitions.
When you go down to the ground floor, remember to look up. The Shanghai Tower was designed to look like a dragon spiraling up into the sky and follows the concept of Feng Shui with its rounded and soft design co-located near the other two sharper towers.
The 120 degree turn spiral shape is also used to withstand winds of typhoon strength and earthquakes both of which Shanghai often suffers from. The six meter concrete foundation probably helped too.
Be sure to equalise your ears as you go up. The high-speed elevators (fastest in the world), take less than 1 minute to go up the 118 floors and I had to equalise three times on the way up, it was going too fast for me to have time for that.
Tip: I would suggest you come here in the morning so that you enjoy the peace, evening sees real crowds, in the morning you can easily take pictures without a thousand people on them.
Get your tickets to go up to the Observation deck on Klook.
Have a drink on the 87th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center
The Shanghai Tower is not the only tall tower in Lujiazui as mentioned before, there are three other ones worth checking out. The next one on this list is the Shanghai World Financial Center, opened in 2008.
Easily recognisable for its bottle opener shape, this is the second tallest building in Shanghai and another one worth checking out. The tower has 101 floors and, at the top, it measures 492m. The observation deck is on three floors, the ones around the aperture of the bottle opener, floors 93, 97 and 100.
This split observation decks also means that you can walk on the aperture as if it were a bridge, even though it technically isn’t. This unique feature, reminiscent of the tower in Riyadh, makes it a choice for many visitors.
Shanghai World Financial Center opened in 2008 but had been in the works for over 10 years. It was first stalled by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998 and then by changes in its design to make the aperture trapezoid instead of rounded, as it was too close to Japan’s rising sun symbology, a bone of contention in countries like South Korea.
The tower is a mixed-used development with a shopping mall on the ground floor followed by offices and a hotel, the Park Hyatt Shanghai, which, at the time of opening, was the highest in the world for occupying the 79th to 93rd floors.
While you could choose to go up to the observation deck, and if you have enough time and interest in this you should, I would suggest to enjoy a drink at the bar inside the Park Hyatt Hotel instead, for a change.
While the Shanghai Tower is worth it for being the tallest, and the Oriental Pearl Tower makes sense because it is a bit like an amusement park, the views from the World Financial Center will be largely the same, so it pays to use the money instead to enjoy a fancy drink at night.
Get your tickets for the Shanghai World Financial Center here.
Shop at Shanghai International Financial Center mall
This upscale mall made of two towers is a great place if you are looking to spend some money buying high-end clothes, shoes and handbags. Split into two buildings with office and a hotel towering the upper levels of a shopping mall area, you could really be anywhere here.
The Oriental Pearl Tower
The Oriental Pearl Tower
While the other towers are all glitz and glam, the Oriental Tower is more about flash and Chinese entertainment for the whole family, and reflects the Shanghai of 1994 when it opened.
Located 351m high, its design was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem called Pipa Song by Bai Juyi that talks about pearls falling from the sky, hence the spheres (and name). Apparently the designer Jiang Huancheng said that he didn’t have this poem in mind and it was rather the chief of the jury board who said it reminded him of that poem.
The Oriental Pearl Tower sightseeing deck is much lower than at the other towers in the Pudong District, although the tower measures 468m which is just over 20m lower than the Shanghai World Financial Center tower. This is because the broadcasting antenna adds 118m to the tower.
While it is great to visit this tower, as you will read further down, this is also one of the most photographed and recognizable tourist attractions in Shanghai. No matter where you are, you will almost always be able to see it, especially at night when it is lit with changing neon colors.
I very much enjoyed my visit because it was very different from the rest and full of things to do in Shanghai on several levels beyond the observatory deck, even if sometimes it was bordering on the tacky side.
I also found the museum on the lower floors to be very interesting, worth a visit on its own (see next section), and unexpected as it is not usually mentioned on most of the lists of things to do in Shanghai.
Brochure and information
So what can you expect at the Oriental Tower?
The Oriental Tower is a broadcasting tower, that is, it has an engineering and functional role beyond just the fun floors. There are no commercial offices or facilities other than the entertainment floors as it was all just built to hold the antenna at the top.
The tower has 11 spheres linked by three columns, two of which are larger than the rest, the smaller one at the top contains the Sightseeing Deck and Space Module and the lower one is the Space City with arcades and other amusement rides and shows.
You can (and will have to) stop for activities on 15 of the floors in total. Apart from the attractions mentioned in the spheres above, there are also virtual reality rides, shops, etc.
To go up the tower you will need to get our tickets on the ground floor and then wait in the specific queue depending on your ticket to get the elevator at the top floors. You can buy a regular ticket to the main sphere, or add on other things like a meal at the revolving restaurant.
The highest sphere houses the Space Module which is designed like a shuttle and talks about outer space, with a few photogenic spots (astronaut photo op anyone?), this is a much smaller sphere than the rest.
The second main sphere has three floors, a top revolving restaurant, the main Sightseeing Deck and a lower glass-bottomed deck.
If you like to enjoy your meal while seeing 360 degree views of the city, the complete turn takes 2 hours and it is best enjoyed for dinner when you can see the city lights come to life. Book your evening revolving restaurant meal tickets here.
This main deck is surrounded by signs talking about all the buildings below and can get really crowded. There are also shops selling souvenirs and tourists wielding selfie sticks so watch your step if you don’t want to be poked in the eye.
Go one level down to the open air glass-bottom corridor of the tower and feel the wind on your face as you watch the world under your feet. I have to admit this was pretty exhilarating.
The lowest and largest sphere has several floors of pure amusement park entertainment that even has a roller coaster, and the podium of the tower has a museum and shopping mall.
Outside the tower there are also a host of things to do like the Coca-Cola Minipark or the Coca-Cola Happiness restaurant.
Tip: Allow for a couple of hours at least to see the tower. Not only is there a lot to see and do but also, you are forced to change lifts several times and walk through almost every floor, as if you were at Ikea. So whether you like it or not, you will spend a lot of time just going through. The tower opens at 8am so you could even see the sunrise in winter.
Buy your tickets in advance on Klook.
The Shanghai Municipal History Museum
Opened in 2001 as a joint effort between the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai History Museum, this is a great place to learn more about the city’s history in a visual and interactive way.
The museum is located on the second floor of the Oriental Pearl Tower and you can buy combined tickets to the tower and the museum. Filled with models and reconstructions of the many neighborhoods and buildings in Shanghai, it’s a great place to take a stroll through history.
There are wax figures of famous characters and dioramas spread over five halls chronologically organized to the 21st century. You will even be able to take photos dressed in classical Chinese clothes on hand carriages.
Make sure you plan for enough time to visit the museum during your visit to the tower, it is very large and interesting and because some parts are interactive you can spend quite some time having fun.
Tip: The Bund Sightseeing tunnel is right by the tower so you might want to use it if you are heading back to The Bund.
Things to do in Shanghai – Elsewhere
Shanghai is a large city, the most populated on the planet to be precise, so there are lots of other things to do and places to explore, some of them are just outside the city center and others are a bit further out.
There are also great tours to get under the skin of the city, cultural and foodie ones, no better way to learn about a place by eating your way through it.
Go on a food tour
Let’s talk about food. Shanghai has a great culinary scene rivalring Hong Kong, Japan or Singapore, and what better way to learn all about it than by going on a food tour?
Below are some great options for day and night exploration.
- Evening food tour of locally owned small business. You will try the famous soup dumplings, noodles and end at a craft beer bar. Book your ticket on Klook here.
- Go on a street food tour of Yunnan Road, the famous street food area of Shanghai where you can try Shanghai specialty dishes like scallion noodles and mooncakes. You can book this on GetYourGuide here. The tour starts with soup dumplings in the old part of the city among Shikumen houses.
- Have a breakfast food tour with a temple visit. Chinese breakfast consists of savory items, with pancakes and noodles, you can learn all about it as you tuck into great street items on a walking tour. The tour also visits a market and the small lanes of Old Shanghai. Book it on GetYourGuide here.
- If you are an active person who likes to bike, Shanghai has a huge biking tradition and you can combine this and food on a bike food tour, burn the calories as you sample great local dishes. Book the bike food tour on GetYourGuide here.
Learn to make dumplings
Shanghai is all about dumplings, soup ones to be precise, and what better way to learn more about this delicate and hard-to-perfect dish than by taking a market visit followed by a cooking class?
Who knows, maybe you will be able to surprise your guests back home with your own version!
Book tickets for the cooking class and market visit here (pst this tour is sometimes discounted on Klook).
High-speed Maglev train from the airport
Transfers and commutes to and from the airport are never a fun experience, except for in Shanghai where you can take the train to get into town in just 7 minutes!
The Maglev is the high-speed train that connects the airport in Pudong with the city center. It is not the same as a bullet train, this one works on magnets and floats over the rails in what is called magnetic levitation, a very cool experience.
Buy your tickets in advance here so you don’t have to fuss about with the machine.
More information on the Maglev on their official website here.
Explore the Shanghai Expo pavilions and China Art Palace
China Art Palace or China Art Museum is a contemporary Chinese art museum housed inside what used to be the China Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 Expo.
The building itself is pretty cool, designed to look like a temple that resembles more the ones found in Tokyo than in China, and is very large. Book an audio guide on site to make the most of this huge museum (there is a small fee).
Make sure to go up to see the Multimedia version of the Qingming River map which is a moving movie-like art piece showing life by the river in Kaifeng City during the Northern Song Dynasty. There is an extra entrance fee for this.
The whole video takes about four minutes to roll by and is a multimedia version of the original scroll “The Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival”.
Around the China Art Palace are all the rest of the pavilions built for the Shanghai Expo 2010 and you can wander around to take a look. The Expo was the largest on record and also counted the highest attendance in a day at any Expo.
Tip: Don’t make the trip all the way to the museum without first booking your tickets exactly two in advance, no more no less. Tickets can be booked on this website from 9am to 5pm daily and for entrance 2 days later. You can only buy 3 tickets per person. The booking process is cumbersome and requires you to signup for Weibo, automatic online Google Translate does a good enough job to help you navigate, have patience.
The museum is closed on Mondays. More information here (website in Chinese but easy to navigate with Google translate).
Take a day trip to a water town
This part of China is well known for the UNESCO-listed water towns located south of the Yangtze River. Most of them are nearby, some can be reached via bullet train in less than an hour, and they are well worth a visit.
There are a few that you can visit on organised tours, and I would highly recommend that because it will be easier to get there on the logistics front and you will have a guide to show you the best sites. Some of these water towns can be really large and it’s easy to miss the highlights among the souvenir shops.
Below are the best water towns and tours to visit them.
If you just want a tester for the water town experience with a visit to one that is close by, Zhujiajiao is the most popular and convenient. That also means it is the most developed for tourism and can get quite packed.
Go on a half-day afternoon tour with bus transfers from Shanghai that gives you about 3 hours in the town including a visit to a silk mill. There are four pick up points at major hotels on The Bund and Pundong sides. Book here on Klook.
Alternatively, book a private tour of Zhujiajiao water town so that you can travel your own way. This one from GetYourGuide comes highly praised and remember that you can cancel up to 24h in advance with GetYourGuide.
Zhouzhuang and Jinxi
These two water towns are less crowded and popular than Zhujiajiao and offer a bit more than the usual stone bridges and gondola experience. Also, because they are near each other they are usually visited on combined tours.
Go on a full day tour of the two towns with pick up from hotels in Shanghai city center and lunch included. Book it here.
This completely renovated 1,300 year-old water town is a great place to see what the real life in water towns used to be like.
Wuzhen has been given a remarkable facelift by the government and has lots of things to offer, from the traditional stone bridges and gondola rides to flower fields, indigo workshops, old houses and culture and art museums.
I stayed at Alila Wuzhen, the best hotel in the area, and I highly recommend booking for a couple of nights and spending a day exploring Wuzhen which is a very large water town.
If you prefer to visit on a day trip, you can book a private whole day tour on GetYourGuide.
Suzhou is another famous water town near Shanghai and perhaps one of the most picturesque and well-known ones, famous not only for the canals but also for its many little pagodas and beautifully landscapes Chinese gardens.
Book a full day tour of Suzhou and Zhou Zhuang on GetYourGuide. The tour includes lunch, minivan transfers, pick up and a drink and comes highly recommended.
Alternatively, book a tour just to Suzhou on the bullet train. The tour starts at the train station with your ticket which is included in the tour price. Lunch and a guide at Suzhou are also included.
Get young at Disneyland
Who says you cannot get younger? Disneyland surely has that effect on most adults.
Disneyland Shanghai is the first Disneyland in China and the largest in Asia, larger than the one in Hong Kong or the one in Tokyo.
The park has all the same attracions as in other Disneyland parks, like the princes castles and all the Disney characters and it is very large so expect to walk a lot. You might want to purchase the two day ticket if you really want to make the most of it.
Get your tickets to Shanghai Disneyland in advance to avoid the queues (trust us here!) or benefit from an early booking discount. Below are all the options plus some add-ons to make the most of your stay:
- Advance ticket sales with discount can be purchased here. With this, you go on a different queue to get the ticket and don’t have to queue much.
- Regular tickets can be purchased here. Same as above, you go on a different queue to get the ticket and don’t have to queue much.
- Bus shuttle service to and from the park can be booked here.
- If you are keen to view The Beauty and the Beast musical in Disneyland, buy advance tickets here.
- Stay the night with a Disney hotel experience bookable here.
- Get a Disney Photopass experience so that you can get your snaps at popular spots in the park to take home. Book here with extra discounts.
By this point you must be wondering why we have barely talked about temples or historical and religious places to visit in Shanghai, and this is because there aren’t many.
The city is largely modern, well, from the last couple of centuries at least, and the official line of the Chinese Government on religion is atheism.
But fret not, there are a couple of temples worth checking out in the outskirts of the city center, one of which is the Longhua Temple.
Longhua Temple is the only old structure in Shanghai and is a pretty large religious complex with pagodas and pavilions as well as golden statues. It is a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple filled with red and gold. Some parts of the temple are thought to be old, from the 10th century, but the majority is newer and dating from the 19th century.
Watch a show
Shanghai is known for the many shows and one the most interesting ones is the Cirque du Soleil style Shanghai Circus World which includes lots of acrobatics and impressive theatrics coupled with music and lights. You can book your tickets in advance here.
Other specifically local shows include the Chinese Acrobatics Show which focuses more on skills and impressive performances. You can book your tickets here. The tickets include hotel pick up and drop off and the services of a guide.